My Pushcart in Yokohama

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a year off to teach English in Japan to help pay for tuition. Having experienced taco truck street food while attending Occidental College in Los Angeles, I yearned for the late night snack and saw an opportunity to introduce a decent street taco to the Tokyo late-night crowd. Japan had not discovered Mexican food back in the 80s. Tacos were a caricature of the real thing, cabbage was often substituted for lettuce and the only tortillas you could find were El Paso’s fried hard shells at the expat grocery store. 

There is a long tradition of street food in Japan. Scores of ramen or oden pushcarts (yatai) could be found at every railway station with groups of salarymen grabbing a bite after a long day at the office or a night of karaoke. The yatai business is hyper-competitive and you would often spot dusty old pushcarts under railroad bridges, abandoned by someone who had tried and failed to bootstrap their career. My thought was to reclaim one of these old carts, fix it up, and introduce my tacos in the streets of Tokyo after my evening English lessons. Encouraged by my fellow English teachers, I felt I had a core group of regular customers with which to start and it seemed easy enough to fix up an old yatai, find a spare spot, and set up shop. Boy was I wrong.

Locating an old yatai that was abandoned and in decent condition was easy enough. During my spare time between classes I found some carts that were parked a good distance away from any station that appeared no longer in use. There were several of them in what looked like an old yatai graveyard. I found an old one that clearly had not been used for a long time and left a note asking if I could take it. I came back several days in a row to check. When I was confident the owner was long gone, I set to work refurbishing it for service.

I visited the local government office to ask what was required to open a yatai and received a document with several pages of requirements. My basic Japanese translation of the document listed out things such as a source of running water, refrigeration, and a way to keep the food warm. All these would be examined at an inspection by the health authorities before I could get a license.

Perhaps it was my naiveté but I chose a creatively liberal interpretation to meet these requirements:

  • Running water? A 20-gallon plastic jug with a hose connected to a spigot running into a “sink” which was a plastic bucket with a hole drilled out of the bottom.
  • Refrigeration? I cut a series of styrofoam panels and glued them to the walls of a cabinet and fashioned a door to seal it shut.
  • Burner? I placed two portable table-top gas burners into a rack I fashioned to hold them and the pots of taco fillings I would serve.

I think the old health inspector took pity on the innocent gaijin kid with a capitalistic gleam in his eye because when I rolled my contraption to the government office for my appointment, he took a cursory glance, listened patiently to my explanation of how I satisfied all the checkboxes on the form, grunted his approval, and stamped my certificate! All I needed now was a location, this is when I learned about the yakuza.

The yatai business in Japan, is lightly regulated by the government (as demonstrated by my easy approval), but strictly controlled by the yakuza. The area immediately around each train or subway station, while clear during the day, hosts a warren of cozy little noodle stands that crop up around 8 or 9 pm each evening. Every open spot is “controlled” by the local gang who takes a share of the revenues as “protection money” to keep things running smoothly. The yakuza runs interference with the local government, police, and rival gangs to keep them out of the hair of the proprietors and for this service, each yatai owner pays the gang a cut of their profits. A noodle stand can clear between $1000 – $3000 a night so it’s a good business so long as everyone’s happy and things are running smoothly.

My English school was near Yokohama station, a major terminus south of Tokyo so the streets leading to the station were already crowded with many yatai, all with their own specialties and faithful regulars. Of course no one was serving tacos so I felt that was my in. I had scouted out a location on a street under a nearby highway overpass that was in between a busy nightclub district and the station so I felt I could grab some people on their way home or going out for the evening. It was also on the way home from the English school so convenient for the teachers and students as well. It appeared that the space was open so I asked the nearby yatai owners if it would be ok if I opened my stand in that spot.

There is a clear pecking order among all the yatai and I was directed to one stand lording over a fork in the road, a prime spot at the nexus of two major walking routes to the station. The yatai was a ramen cart and the broad shouldered proprietor had such a steady stream of clientele that he required two satellite tables to serve all his customers. I bought a bowl of his excellent tonkotsu and after making small talk about the secret of his broth, explained my street taco concept and how I might go about securing a spot down the road and how much the “protection money” would cost. He explained to me that I would have to meet “the man,” explain my business, and this person would negotiate a fee and grant his permission. I asked when I might meet this mysterious person who didn’t have a name and was told that he would introduce me when appropriate.

Several nights passed and each time I would stop by the ramen stand and ask if “the man” was around and each time was told I had either just missed him or that he had not come by that night. Finally, after about two weeks, I decided that the only way I was going to meet this guy was just to set up my stand and he would come by sooner or later, the chips would fall and I would then know what I was working with. I made final preparations, cooked up a batch of taco fillings to open for business after my last lesson.

Opening night was a roaring success. All the English teachers and several students came by to try out my 300 yen tacos. I sold cans of beer out of a cooler and all the activity attracted a few curious barmaids on their way to work and they promised to tell their friends. No “man” came by on the first night, neither on the second. Just as I was beginning to wonder if such a guy existed, on the third night a cheery guy just looking for a good time stopped by and was full of questions about what I was doing.

yatai1

My imagination prepared me for some scarface gangster in a black suit and red tie but I was totally thrown off by this guy with the fashion sense of a carnival barker. He was such a bundle of joy I showered him with free beers and tacos and me and my English teacher friends quickly won him over. He clearly enjoyed the music we were playing (I think it was Aretha Franklin) and loved the vibe. Later that evening, as I was cleaning things up and he was on his 5th can of Asahi Dry , I broached the topic of “rent” and he shrugged it off and patted me on the shoulder and said that he wanted to do his bit for international relations and sponsor my stand gratis!

yatai2

I continued the stand the rest of that year, later bringing on a partner who ran the stand on alternate evenings so I could get some time off. One evening it was pouring rain so my partner and I decided not to open for business. The next night, when I was setting up, he was waiting for me, sitting on the curb. He scolded me saying that if I wanted to establish regular customers it was imperative that I be open, rain or shine. A fundamental rule of business that I have never forgotten.

My yatai adventure ended that Summer as I got ready to return to college but I’ll never forget the lessons I learned. The hardest part of starting a business is starting. Once you gain momentum, people and promise have a way of materializing and turning your dream into reality. And with the right attitude, barriers that you imagine for yourself are just that, your imagination. Chip away at anything and it’s all just people.

yatai-pinto

More about coffee

george clooney-nespresso

More writing about the value of handmade coffee (vs. those automated Nespresso capsule machines) to follow on my earlier post about Specialty Coffee.

It is not that handmade is always best, of course. Much technology is itself a testimony to human creativity and ingenuity. Apple has got very rich through supplying technology that is beautifully designed by humans who are as gifted as the best artisans. There is plenty that we should happily allow to be mechanised, for the obvious benefits that brings. But there is plenty else we will continue to prefer to be handmade, because what matters is not just the result, but the process by which you get there. Humans are imperfect, and so a world of perfection that denies the human element can never be truly perfect after all.

– from Coffee Artisans

* More George Clooney endorsements over on my Celebrity Endorsements gallery

Specialty Coffee around the World

sf-barrista

The New York Times has a piece about the San Francisco coffee scene, specifically the barista training upstairs from the local temple of the perfect cup, Sightglass.

While the West Coast style of brewing is making it’s way to Japan in places like Shibuya, Japan has it’s own professional brewing method which they take very seriously. It’s called siphoning.

japanese-siphonist

The Long Now Bottle Keep

As I grow older, I have come to appreciate the power of stories. I collect them as I go through life, sometimes seeking out experiences because a good story may come out of it.  I was invited this past week to join the staff of The Long Now Foundation to share a story that I have been telling for years but never took the time to add to this blog.

Back when I was living in Tokyo, I had a several university mates that stopped by to visit. Like any host living overseas, I had gotten things pretty well wired where I could suss out what they wanted to see and could arrange from a number of “module” walks that could be strung together to make for an interesting day. But there was one visit, by an old fraternity brother, that really stood out. Mike was legendary for living life to the hilt, his laugh was infectious and he always went for the most extreme just to see what it was like. While most people traveled through Europe in between high school and college, Mike went to Africa. He was that kind of guy.

When Mike said he was coming to Tokyo, I of course planned an epic evening of carousing. We started at Shimokitazawa at around 4 pm and hit Ginza, Shibuya, Harajuku, and finally, at around 2am, stumbled into Shinjuku where I planned to show him Golden Gai. It’s hard to describe this area except to say it’s about the size of a city block but houses over 200 tiny little bars piled all up on top of each other. It’s been described as Ridley Scott’s inspiration for the street vendor scene in Blade Runner if you want to put an image into your mind. The place hasn’t changed since the war and each bar there has it’s own story and storied clientele.

Remember, it’s 2am and Mike and I have been drinking since the afternoon so we’re basically stumbling around leaning on each other but I feeling good, knowing whichever bar we pick it’s going to be weird. In a good way. I’d been here several times and each time, it’s kind of like a Disneyland for adults. Go into one bar and you might meet a bunch of John Wayne fans where the bar stools are saddles, the drinks are burbon, and music is strictly C&W. Hit another place and it’s all old Zero fighter pilots drinking sake and telling tales from the war. Another place is a haunt for movie buffs that have a weakness for Fellini. Each bar is tiny, they only have 6-10 seats so they are real cozy. But in the wonderful openness of Japan, each bar will welcome anyone that joins them with the proper deference and curiosity.

So I was feeling pretty good and turned fate over to Mike. I slurred out to him to, “Pick any one you’d like, they’re all fantastic in their own way!” and asked him to choose where to go. He spun on a heel and waved his left arm and pointed to some rickety stairs that went up the side of corrugated steel, painted a shade of faded blue.

We made our way up the stairs and stumbled through the door into a place that was amazingly elegant compared to the jumble outside. It was dark but lighting under the bar and via colored sconces on the wall gave the place a very sophisticated feel. There was some jazz playing, something like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue – very cool. There was only one other patron, off in the corner with his whiskey and the “master” or owner of the bar. He’s there, beard and glasses, slowly polishing a shot glass with a linen napkin.

Mike & I stumble in and made a bit of ruckus but quickly quieted down and settled into the open seats in front of the bartender. He keeps looking at me, slowly studying my face over his glasses. Finally he says,

“Moshikashitara, Kennedy-san no musuko jyanaidesuka,” which is the basically, “If I’m not mistaken, you’re Kennedy’s son aren’t you?”

I look up, incredulous. How does this guy know me? And my father? I have been to a few bars around here but have no recollection of this place. He tells us to wait a minute and then goes into a back room where we hear the clinking and clanking of bottles. He returns holding a bottle aloft like a prize-winning catch. It’s a whiskey bottle with about 1/3 left in it and as he places it on the counter I can see my handwriting on the side of it.

It all comes back to me then. A couple of nights before I went away to boarding school, leaving my parents at 13 to fly halfway around the world to Concord, Massachusetts, my father took me to this bar to have a drink with his son. He bought a bottle and we wrote our names on the side and, as is the tradition in most Japanese bars, the owner would then keep it there for us whenever we returned. This is the Japanese tradition of “bottle keep.” Only in this case, I had not been there in over 10 years and not only had the bartender somehow recognized me, he also had been hanging on to this bottle in case either my father or myself would return.

It was at that moment that my friend Mike fell off his chair. He could not believe that such a thing was possible. That you could have a relationship with an establishment over such a long arc. The funny thing about this story is that the bar was called “Gu” which is the word for “closed fist” as in the closed-fist from scissors/rock/paper. Basically hanging on, determination.

So full circle back to The Long Now. A friend,  Mikl-em not only heard me tell this tale but remembered it as something that might interest the folks from The Long Now Foundation. Their mission is to help people think about the long term and one of their more famous projects is the 10,000 Year Clock which, if you don’t know about it, you must read more about as it will change your perspective on technology and human permanence.

The reason my Bottle Keep story is relevant is The Long Now Foundation is opening a Salon and will stock it with a special batch of gin distilled by the folks at St. George’s Spirits using juniper berries for the 5,000 year old bristle cone pines that happen to grow on the side of the mountain in Texas where they are building the 10,000 year clock. The idea is that for a donation, The Long Now Salon will hold your bottle for you on site so you can come at any time and enjoy it with your friends. As my sister says, “With bottle keep, no need to ‘buy’ someone a drink and all that implies.”

Help us build it… from The Long Now Foundation on Vimeo.

I’m happy to hear that they are bringing the bottle keep concept to San Francisco. It’s the perfect thing for The Long Now Foundation to do and they are going about it with the same sense of care and craftsmanship as they are with their other projects. Indeed, my visit was part of their learning. The staff took in my story and weaved in their own experiences and asked questions for more details. The conversation was relaxed and philosophical. It was a beautiful day outside and their offices in Fort Mason look out over the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate. We drank tea. Before I knew it, I had lost track of time and realized I had to get back to work.

Thank you Mikl-em and thank you Long Now folks for a wonderful afternoon.

commis restaurant

As we were seated, we were offered a small bowl of stones with two, small toasted cheese treats covered in ash to look like the small pebbles on which they were arranged. When I asked the server what was put before us, “A bowl of rocks, sir” was the reply. More Amuse than Bouche.

We scored two of the six seats at the counter and were able to watch the open kitchen prepare meals. It was a small kitchen with six chefs working in close quarters, moving through their stations in a choreographed dance. The restaurant seats 31 and all the action takes place in the kitchen but in almost complete silence. Norah Jones hums quietly over the hi-fi but from the kitchen it’s all hushed reverence of the locally acquired ingredients.

Each of the six dishes of the fixed price meal (our menu for the evening) were prepared in front of us. Arranged is a better word.  Rhubarb confit was carefully plopped off a spoon with just the right flick of the wrist to give it the right consistency.  One was slightly off leaving a trail dripped off to the side, the chef winced, started over again. Each chef had a pair of tweezers tucked into a breast pocket on their grey apron which they would whip out to arrange flower petals or lightly fried mint leafs just so. Each dish was a beauty to behold.

It was like eating ikebana arrangements.

It was a fantastic meal, well worth paying extra for the wine pairings that brought a wide variety of interesting local wines to go with each dish.  After stints at Coi in San Francisco and Manresa in Los Gatos, head chef James Syhabout is back in his native Oakland (he went to Oakland Tech). Deservedly, Commis was awarded it’s first Michelin star after only four months of business and continues to attract people from across the Bay.

Commis Restaurant
3859 Piedmont Avenue
Oakland, CA 94611

A New Restaurant Gets Noticed – New York Times

My flickr photoset of the evening

Coca-Cola’s Secret Recipe

Could this be Coca-Cola’s secret recipe? NPR’s weekly radio, This American Life, show dusts off an old newspaper article from 1979 which featured the photo scanned below.

On the episode (podcast), Ira Glass works with the folks at Jones Soda and tries to recreate the original recipe which includes things such as coriander and neroli oil. Fast Company has a post by the son of Charles Salter, the Georgia Rambler, who filed the original story and took the photo above for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Secret Coke Recipe on “This American Life?” My Dad Found That.

200-year old Champagne Preserved by Icy Baltic

Earlier this year it was reported that several cases of champagne were discovered in a shipwreck 55 meters under the Baltic Sea, off the small island of Åland near Finland. After tasting it, a local champagne expert suspected that the bottles were from Veuve Cliquot, the famous French maker established in 1772. Out of a total cargo of 172 bottles, 168 were recovered intact and in November, more experts were invited to Åland to recork several bottles and, in the process, confirm their identity. Jean-Hervé Chiquet, visiting in November is quoted in the New York Times today

He was “overcome with emotion,” he said, when he first tasted the Champagne at the recorking in November.

“There was a powerful but agreeable aroma, notes of dried fruit and tobacco, and a striking acidity,” Mr. Chiquet said by telephone. The oldest Champagne in Jacquesson’s inventory is from 1915, he said.

The Champagne was probably en route to the court of Czar Alexander II in St. Petersburg when the wooden cargo vessel sank. Though the exact age of the Champagne is not yet known, it goes up against tough competition in the oldest Champagne category.

The Champagne house Perrier-Jouët claims that its vintage of 1825 is the oldest recorded Champagne in existence. Mr. Hautekeur said Veuve Clicquot’s oldest drinkable bottle was from 1904.

It’s not clear how old these bottles are but markings on the cork, the shape of the bottles, and plates also found on the wreck puts them in the early 1800’s. Most of the champagne survived and is quite drinkable with the tiny bubbles still visible and the taste, “compared favorably to some of the best Champagnes today.” The total darkness of frigid waters off of Finland served as the perfect wine cellar.